Making more mindful choices
Between drinking lots of black coffee and hanging around in Paris in turtlenecks, existentialists talk a lot about the cost of freedom. As Sartre famously said ‘we are condemned to be free’. As an outsider this can often seem puzzling, surely freedom is a good thing?
Choices = possibility and loss
Existentialists argue that the freedom afforded by our choices is hard because each choice contains both possibility and also a loss of all the other options I could have chosen. For example, I meet a friend at a cafe and order a hot chocolate. That choice contains within it both possibility (yummy hot chocolate just like my grandma used to make it!) and also a loss (I could have chosen tea, more sensible) or a smoothie, (healthier) or hot chocolate with cream and marshmallows, (mind blown).
As you can see even from my rather silly example each choice contains a loss because we can never know what would happen if we had gone down the path not taken. The film Sliding Doors nicely illustrates that longing for a crystal ball that plagues us all. ‘If I could just see what would happen, it would make it so much easier to choose.’ Unfortunately, our lives aren’t like that – we can’t press rewind or ask to choose again. We have to live with the consequences of the choices we’ve made, and because our lives are finite and one day we will die, our choices matter.
The restaurant test
How do people respond to the difficulty of choice? One way is to observe how people order in restaurants, there are a number of options you could choose from:
- You can dither between different options forgetting that to not choose is in itself a choice - ‘Sorry, I just can’t decide. Both the pizza and pasta looks so good.’
- You can limit your choices or choose so swiftly it seems almost like there is no choice at all - ‘I always have a margarita pizza. It’s my dish.’
- You can ignore that there are any choices available to you and surrender to a higher power or fate or karma - Shut eyes and stab widely at the menu or flip a coin.
- You can ask another person to make a choice for you - ‘Pick for me, I can’t decide.’
- Or you can choose mindfully. Weighing up the different options, checking in with yourself and making a decision knowing that to do so is to let the other options go.
None of these are right or wrong, they all have their benefits and their disadvantages, and when it comes to something as simple as what to order for dinner it doesn’t really matter. But that attitude to choices when extended to bigger options can have interesting ramifications. Even the refusal to choose, is itself, a choice.
Clients often come to counselling when the way they approached this issue of choice is no longer working for them. They might feel out of control, as if none of their choices matter 'Why do these things keep happening to me?'. Or they may be so hyper aware of the ramifications of each choice that the anxiety paralyses them. With a counsellor you can work on accepting the things you cannot change and will learn to focus on what you can influence, thereby helping you to become more empowered so that you consciously choose options that are right for you.
Choices vs responsibility
One of the most common misconceptions about existentialist therapy is the confusion of choices with responsibilities. Often existentialism with it’s focus on freedom is seen as ‘blaming the victim'. As if because we are free to choose we must take responsibility for what happens to us. This is not the case. You are not always responsible for what happens to you, but you can always choose how you respond even if your options are limited.
An example: a man is falsely imprisoned. Although his behaviour may have contributed to him getting imprisoned (protesting against an unjust system) he is not responsible for being imprisoned (that responsibility lies with the unjust system). However, he is free to choose how he reacts to that situation. He could fight, practice peaceful protest, go on a hunger strike, comply, or continue his revolutionary activities within the system. As you can see in this example, even when our choices are limited, they still exist.
Tragedy drops from the sky and our lives can change in a moment in ways we did not anticipate, ask for or control. But what we can control is our response.
Homework – what to do when you have a difficult choice to make
Try and dispel anxiety around choosing by imagining yourself a month or even a year from now, will this choice matter?
Flip a coin and pay close attention to your feelings. A lingering sense of disappointment or relief will give you clues as to how to proceed.
Consider the best and worse case scenario. If you make this choice and everything goes better than you could ever imagine, what would that look like? Conversely if your choice makes everything worse, what would that look like?
Finally, when you are really feeling stuck imagine yourself on your deathbed looking back over your life. What would you have wanted to achieve? What would you regret? Does your choice reflect that?
Do you recognise your own approach to choices in any of the options above? Do let me know in the comments.
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